I would like to start out this review by saying I am not a traditionalist when it comes to Jane Austen. I’m a huge fan but I honestly get annoyed when I hear my fellow Austenites nitpick the film adaptations to death. I don’t like the versions that are name only that Hallmark does but for the most part I like most of the films based on Jane Austen’s glorious novels. I even like the 2 versions based on Mansfield Park that it seems like nobody likes. I loved the recent version of Emma, which some took issues with and I was a big fan of Love and Friendship which is almost nothing like the book but was wickedly good fun.
Now we have a new version directed by Carrie Cracknell of Persuasion, which is perhaps Austen’s hardest novel to adapt because of the demur heroine at the lead and I held out hope even as others criticized the trailer. “Come on. Give it a chance!” I cried out! Unfortunately now that I have seen it I must admit it is as bad as the naysayers feared and I’m super bummed out about it. Darn!
Let’s start with the positives. First, the core story of the novel remains in tact with Anne rejecting Frederick Wentworth as a young woman and then them being thrown into each other’s company years later and being forced to reexamine their feelings now that he is successful and she is under regency customs an old maid. All those plot points are there.
The cast is also generally good with Richard E Grant stealing the show as Anne’s father Sir Walter. There is also some diversity in the casting with Nikki Amuka-Bird playing Lady Russell and Henry Golding (who is barely in the movie) playing Anne’s cousin, Mr William Elliott.
The problem lies with the adaptation and screenplay by Ronald Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow. (And again I am fine with non-traditional adaptations but there are limits). In their version of the story they have completely changed Anne from a sweet, shy and meek woman who is kind to a fault to a rebellious, outspoken wine drunk (literally at one point she pours a bottle of wine all over her head after sad-drinking all day).
A friend of mine and I were talking the other day about how many Austen adaptations want to turn every character into Lizzie Bennett from Pride & Prejudice, which we can definitely see here but worse. They even condone Anne at one point for having too much pride, which is not her character at all. If you want to make another Lizzie Bennett than make another Pride & Prejudice! All that said, even Lizzie wouldn’t behave the way Anne does in this movie being a smart aleck and talking back to people.
I also had problems with the way they set up the romance. Dakota Johnson as Anne and Cosmo Jarvis as Captain Wentworth have no chemistry and they set them up as “friends” early on which gives no doubt that they will get together in the end of the film. In the book it seriously comes into question when he is so angry at her and when he seemingly becomes engaged to Louisa Musgrove. It makes the ending with the letter impactful with the memorable line of “I am half agony, half hope…” In this version we don’t believe he is in agony because all he need do is propose and she is clearly his partner.
A lot of the other choices Cracknell makes are confusing. To begin with, Anne talks to the camera throughout the movie breaking the 4th wall. This is meant to give a saucy quality to her character but again, that’s not Anne’s character. It was very annoying. We also have her changing characters like making Golding’s Elliot a hero of love instead of a selfish villain as in the novel. The problem with this, like I said, is it takes away tension as he is clearly not an actual suitor for Anne or a threat to Wentworth.
In the spirit of Bridgerton they use modern music throughout, which I did not care for. In addition, Johnson doesn’t make any attempt at a British accent, which was a strange choice as many others do use one including her own family. The costuming is also a mess of periods and her hair is disheveled, often not pinned up, with no resemblance to any period I recognize. (All of these production details could have been fine if they got the characters right but they didn’t).
It’s all a bummer because what I wanted and hoped for is simple. We’ve never really gotten a great adaptation of Persuasion. Perhaps its heroine is too sweet and simple for cinema, but I was hopeful with the talent involved maybe they’d figure it out this time. Alas it is not the case. Instead I’d recommend the 2007 version with Sally Hawkins. It’s not perfect but at least has solid chemistry and the story I know and love. This is just not it.
4 out of 10
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